I’m just back from a trip to New York City, and one of the things I did while there was to meet with my great agent, Ellen Geiger of Francis Goldin Literary Agency. That meeting started me thinking about the whole author-agent relationship.
Ellen and I have become friends, as well as business colleagues, during the years she’s been representing me, so our long conversations often touched on the personal. But I was struck by the business part of our talks. I don’t think it was what most authors who are looking for an agent would have expected. We didn’t talk specific contracts (with the exception of an unusual one that’s currently under negotiation). Those discussions are taken care of by phone and email at the time the contract’s being negotiated. What we talked about most of all was what direction my writing career should take in the future. Ellen knows how far we can go in one area before hitting its ceiling, and she encourages me to consider writing other books in other areas, so I won’t be one of the writers having to reinvent myself because my current market has dried up under me.
This kind of long-range career planning is the kind of thing a good agent does with her/his client when they have the chance. After all, I have a contract with Ellen to essentially be my guide and representative in the business aspects of my writing career, and that involves (or should involve) more than just today’s contract for tomorrow’s book. I have this contract with Ellen because she knows the business, and that knowledge is vital in informing the decisions I’ll make about my future efforts. I take her advice seriously because it’s a large part of what I wanted an agent for in the first place.
I know some writers would balk at this. “I don’t want some agent telling me what to write,” one friend said to me when I mentioned this arrangement once. “They’ll always push you toward the commercial and away from the artistic and literary books of your heart.” First of all, Ellen doesn’t tell me what books to write, but she does advise directions and helps me choose the best next book from among the many I want to write. Secondly, that old wives’ (or perhaps more fittingly, old writers’) tale of the agent who forces their author to churn out commercial trash at the expense of her or his soul and reputation is now false, if it ever was true at all. Ellen has even been encouraging me to write a memoir and a literary novel lately. Not exactly the stereotype of the agent my friend and too many others have.
I think it’s important for writers who are still looking for an agent to educate themselves about what a good agent does for her/his client. That way, they’re not as likely to get suckered by one of the bad ones out there—and never forget to check them out with the Association of Authors Representatives and Writer Beware websites. A good agent may have to say things a writer doesn’t want to hear, such as “This book needs more revision,” or “That’s about as much of an advance as you can expect for this genre at your stage of career.” Hollywood and writer-myth have given us this notion that an agent can sell an otherwise unpublishable book and get huge advances for everyone, including rank beginners. Neither of these is true.
Our writing success is directly linked to three things—how good our writing is, how wise our decisions are, and luck. An agent can’t bring us luck or counter the effects of lazy writing, but s/he can help us to make much wiser decisions about the business and the path we choose to take in our career and help steer us away from major pitfalls. The key word in that sentence is “choose,” because the choices are still all the writer’s. The agent only advises. A bad agent is a disaster, but a good one can be a major partner in creating a successful writing career.
If you have an agent, how does your relationship play out? If you’re looking for an agent, what qualities and services are you seeking?